The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book in the Hebrew canon but later separated in the Septuagint. These two books tell the story of Israel’s return to their land after seven decades in Babylonian captivity. The Jewish nation was in shambles: Jerusalem’s walls lay in ruin, the temple was rubble and God’s people openly rebelled against His covenant. How do you rebuild a nation? Call in the builders!
Cyrus the Great (c.590 – 529 B.C.) – an empire builder. We read about him in world history textbooks. He was the first monarch of the Persian Empire which he established by diplomacy as much as military might. His uncommon and merciful treatment of his subjects earned him great favor even among those he conquered. One example of Cyrus’ generosity is recorded in Ezra chapter one. It was Cyrus who ordered that God’s people, the Jews, be allowed to return to Jerusalem and there build the temple to the LORD (Ezra 1:1-4). Greater than Cyrus’ kindness, however, was the word of the LORD bringing all this to pass. Quite likely the king was acquainted with Isaiah’s prophecy written over a century before naming Cyrus as God’s servant who would return Israel to their land and lay the foundation of a new temple (Isaiah 44:28-45:6). Ezra 1:1 says, “in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation.” Jeremiah prophesied that after seventy years captivity in Babylon, God would punish Babylon for their ill treatment of Israel. In 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried the Jews into captivity. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C and one year later (538 B.C.) gave his proclamation allowing the Jews to return and rebuild the temple. While the foundation was laid in Cyrus’ time, the temple was not completed until 516 B.C. during the reign of Darius – exactly seventy years after the Jews captivity began. God’s Word never fails!
Zerubbabel (538-516 B.C.) – the temple builder. Zerubbabel grandson of Jehoiachin (Judah’s next to last king) and a descendant of David, was appointed governor over Judah and led the first band of Jews back to their homeland. Nearly 50,000 followed Zerubbabel, but the great majority of Jews had made new homes away from home and so remained in Babylon. Though King Cyrus was very generous in his patronage of the returnees, the journey home was long, difficult and filled with opponents. Building the temple was Zerubbabel’s goal, but first there had to be an altar on which to make sacrifices. Three times it says they did according to “what was written in the book of Moses” (3:2, 4; 6:18). Hebrews 9:22 states, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (NIV) Zerubbabel understood from God’s Word what many even now do not, i.e. the only way to God is through the blood. Under the Old Covenant, the blood of animals was required, but it only foreshadowed the blood of Jesus Christ which makes it possible for us to enter God’s presence (Hebrews 10:1, 19-22). All are welcome to enter God’s house, but only those covered in the blood of Christ may stand before God. “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9 NIV)
Ezra (458 B.C.) – a faith builder. Ezra was a priest and a scribe and is credited by tradition as author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Psalm 119. He also led the council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon of Scripture. Ezra 7:10 says, “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” During the reign of King Artaxerxes, about 80 years after Zerubbabel, Ezra led a second group of returnees to Jerusalem. There he found the temple rebuilt but the lives of the people in ruins. Intermarriage with peoples worshiping other gods threatened the whole future of Israel, and worst of all, it was their leaders and officials leading them into this sin (Ezra 9:1-2). A priest’s duty was to intercede for the people before God. Particularly he was to appeal to God concerning their sins; and that’s what Ezra did.
- He took their sins very personally (Ezra 9:3-5, 13-15). Daniel did likewise when he prayed prior to Israel’s release from captivity (Daniel 9:1-6). The sins of a nation are the responsibility of us all; Daniel and Ezra understood that. Also, Jesus is our High Priest who takes our sins personally upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15).
- He prayed and he confessed their sins (Ezra 10:1). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
- He told them the truth about what they must do regarding their sins (Ezra 10:10-11). “And so the Lord says, “You must leave them and separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with what is unclean, and I will accept you.” (2 Corinthians 6:17 GNT)
God is no respecter of persons or nations. His forgiveness and mercy are found by all who seek it from the heart: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14 NIV)